We have to talk about it, don't we?
Children of missionary parents often suffer. The parents, passionate about serving God and converting the lost in far off lands, either bring their children along or deposit them in boarding schools in North America, Europe, Africa or Asia. Some kids are brave and resilient and do well in other cultures but many do not. For some children, a boarding school situation may be quite positive, but for younger ones, it usually is negative. (I remember one friend telling me that when he and his siblings were dropped off at a mission boarding school, his younger brother would cry every day for weeks. )
Not all so-called Christian institutions are friendly or safe places. While some kind and well-meaning personnel work in these places, they simply cannot give the love and attention that only a true compassionate parent can provide. And the truth is, numerous children have suffered abuse of all kinds in these schools. One MK (missionary kid), who lived in one of these boarding schools many years ago, writes: "The whole system of separating parents and children for considerable periods of time . . . is both wrong and highly abusive at the best of times. Very often the proper relationship between parent and child is irreparably damaged and the children become estranged." Of course there are situations when children cannot receive adequate education and have to live away from parents but surely this ought to be a rare exception. And the truth is, that often parents have to come back to their country of origin when, after years of separation and love deprivation, their children are in some kind of trouble and require urgent attention. The question we have to ask is: Does God expect this kind of price to be paid for the sake of ministry?
In 1994, my wife Cindy and I moved to Latvia with our 3 boys. They were 4, 10 and 13 in ages. We were excited, ready to make a positive difference in this recently liberated country. Though our kids stayed with us - that is, were never placed in boarding schools - and seemed okay, we know they suffered. Over the years we have had conversations with them about this time in Latvia and admitted our mistakes in parenting. In our zeal to help (save?) Latvians and Russians, we made choices that sacrificed the well-being of our kids for the sake of the ministry. We don't regret our time in Latvia (neither do our boys) but we know we could have - should have - done better. Twice - due largely to the wisdom and discernment of Cindy - we returned to Canada for the sake of educating our kids and helping them adjust to life in Canada. It was difficult to uproot from life in Europe and move but both times it was absolutely the right thing to do for the whole family.
Isn't it true that we are first and foremost responsible for the humans we bring into this world? If we claim to know and serve a loving compassionate God, aren't we then required to also do what is best for our children and not just what is most convenient for us as parents? We cannot go back and undo mistakes made but we can - must - open up the conversation with our children and acknowledge the ways we have hurt them. That's the way of love and this has great healing power.
Who will listen to the voices of the children? Many MKs are now older adults but their stories still need to be heard. As parents we must make it easy for our children to speak to us, allowing them permission to process their stories and pain. And what about the pre-adult children who are far from their homes today? Lonely and afraid, they are silently wondering why the God their parents are serving would require this kind of separation? And why would this loving God not provide for their essential need for safety and parental love? Will organizations, churches and institutions admit their part in the suffering of children and make the changes necessary? Children suffering surely cannot be pleasing to a God of mercy and love. A theological adjustment is needed, I believe, to help us see that children are a priority to God, not an inconvenience, and that saving the world at the expense of our kids is not congruent with the gospel of grace.
Cindy and I are part of an organization called Missionary Kid Safety Net-Canada(MKSN-Canada), which seeks to advocate for those who have endured painful experiences as children on mission fields and in mission schools. It is our desire to come alongside them as they attempt to deal with past abuses and neglect. MKSN-Canada wants to help parents and organizations recognize problems and dangers, assist in restoration of broken lives and work at creating safeguards for the future so that missionary families and their children do not travel down the same path of pain and disillusionment that many full time workers have experienced or are experiencing even today.